To Nowhere and Back

The steel grey pontoons brushed the water, connecting awkwardly with the perpendicular waves of a fishing boat’s wake. The pilot apologized for the slight bump in his landing, which was by far the smoothest I’d ever experienced. But this was my first time landing on water instead of land, and I would remember every element of that seaplane adventure—and what lay at the end—as exceptional.

The flight to Stehekin, a minuscule outpost on the northern tip of Lake Chelan, lasted about half an hour. We took off from the town of Chelan, which lies on the opposite end of the lake, 55 miles to the southeast. Though Chelan is the largest town in the area, it isn’t what I would call bustling. It holds about 4,000 residents, a number that swells with the summer heat and the arrival of vacationing Seattleites.

The Chelan people spoke a dialect of Interior Salish often referred to as Columbia-Wenatchi, named for the two major rivers that carve the landscape of eastern Washington. The name Chelan translates to “deep water,” and Lake Chelan lives up to the name; it’s the third-deepest in the United States. In the winter, the Chelan Dam slowly opens and the lake recedes from the shoreline, giving 20 feet of depth and three miles of length back to the Chelan River, which flows into the once-unruly, now-demure Columbia. The fifty-year process of damming the Columbia, in which the Chelan River played a small part, enabled an industrial boom in the Pacific Northwest, undercutting salmon-fishing traditions to provide security to croplands and cities.

The decades-long improvement of the winding passes through the Cascade mountains which separate the rainy Washington coast from the arid interior have turned what was once a remote destination, rustic by necessity rather than aesthetic sense, into a booming holiday hub. Where there were once apple orchards, an ever-expanding collection of small vineyards now creep across the Cascadian foothills. As the region became increasingly responsive to global trade and travel, Chilean apples have outcompeted many local orchards, pushing producers to harness the power of tourism instead. The parents of the bride whose wedding brought my family out West have been asking for years when we’d come see the lake in all its rustic charm. They are more familiar with the era before wineries or waterslides, but they seem happy enough to inform us of the six wine tastings now within walking distance.

***

Many of these changes could best be seen from above, a display of birds-eye entertainment far surpassing the array of rom-coms provided on my flight from one Washington to the other. The burnt orange seaplane flew low, and our pilot lectured into our headsets, a pleasant chatter that my mother and I strained to hear over the dampened whir of the front propeller. Our pilot—his name lost to a slight, sudden uptick in engine noise—provided a steady folk history of the seemingly endless “cricks” that we passed. Canoe crick, where a stranded logger built a makeshift canoe out of a tree, quickly capsized and nearly drowned, only to be rescued by Native Americans. Gold crick, where 19th century homesteaders panned for gold among the steep cliffs. Poison crick, where the same homesteaders dumped their chemical byproducts and killed all the fish in the stream. 25 Mile Creek, its etiology equally clear but perhaps less fascinating.

“If you look to your left, that’s where the road ends.” This, of course, is ostensibly why we were on this scenic excursion in the first place—Stehekin is one of the last towns in America that can’t be reached by road. Our choices were a seaplane, a ferry, or our feet. My mother loves walking, but neither of us were game for a 3-day hike—nor a choppy, 8-hour-round-trip ferry. We only had a few days to waste by the lake, and the longer the trip to nowhere and back, the stronger the awkward sense of indulgence. (Plus, I get seasick easily.)

As we sped north, the peaks became sharper and higher, the slopes of the mountains that lined the lake less and less forgiving. We moved from the Cascadian foothills to the Cascadian mountains, rocky 8,000-footers whose slopes are owned and managed by the Forest Service. The only houses we saw were those belonging to the federal agency or to a few descendants of homesteaders. We passed thousand-acre swaths of ashy grey trees, evidence of massive forest fires that had been left to burn when the mountains became too steep for smoke-jumpers to parachute in and fight the fires on foot. Finally, and all too soon, I felt the mountains grow as we began our descent, my stomach plunging with the drop to the lake’s surface.

As the plane taxied rather gracefully across the lake’s narrow lip to the Stehekin landing, I wondered whether my mother and I had over-indulged our urbanite curiosity. The other passengers had come to Stehekin to go fishing or to start their hikes into North Cascades National Park—using Stehekin (“the way through”) as its name implies. My mother and I, on the other hand, had come for no better reason than because it was hard to reach; we were heading back the way we came on the 4:30 plane.

Still, even the most itinerant of visitors needed a destination, and we picked Rainbow Falls, which the guide booklet recommended as an easy, 3.5 mile bus trip or bike ride. But we like walking, and my mother in particular likes speed walking. Our pilot was skeptical, reminding us that we only had a couple hours until our return plane departed. He laughed and said he’d wait for us; we laughed and said there’d be no need. We set out, two sets of bright, fast-moving tennis shoes and overly excited expressions. Luckily for our pride, there was no need to ask for directions, as there was only one road.

Stehekin attracts the attention of a small but consistent cohort of summer visitors precisely because it has almost no tourist infrastructure. Like many of the people we passed, we were isolation-tourists, there to witness the immense logistics of a life lived disconnected. The town, whose population drops to 75 in the winter, has two restaurants, one lodge, no cell service and approximately eighteen red pickup trucks, each one barged in on the ferry at some point over the last few decades. It was described as a town that had been overlooked by the forces of globalization, which had so clearly left their mark on Chelan.

And on the surface, this seemed true enough. As opposed to Chelan, it appeared to me that Stehekin hadn’t changed much since the sixties. A barn-style toolshed had a scythe and pickaxe hanging on its door. Wooden cabins with signs reading “PRIVATE PROPERTY” and “National Park 10 miles →” lined the road. The public phone booth had a line, and there were no Priuses in sight. Though the old one-room schoolhouse had been retired and preserved as a national historical site, its replacement was only a few times its size. (A Google search the next day revealed that it’s looking for teachers, which has become the newest addition to my mother’s list of retirement fantasies.)

Mom and I loved it. The falls were gorgeous and the lakeside views reminiscent of fjords, but these natural sites paled in comparison to the fascinating idiosyncrasies of the town. And we saw what we wanted to see; a town insulated from global markets. I was so focused on pointing out the next red pickup truck that the vestigial markers of an extensive mining industry fell out of frame. We debated if the pine wood used to frame a new house came from the thousands of pine trees nearby, or if it had all been barged in on the ferry along with the John Deere earthmover. We cooed over the schoolhouse—and laughed at ourselves for cooing. And finally, exhausted from our quick pace, we ended up at the bakery (not “a,” but “the”) which had been highly recommended by our pilot—much more so than the walk.

***

If the bakery had offered cold brew, we could have been in Brooklyn. Gluten-free chocolate cookies and decadent carrot-cake cupcakes filled the display case. The barista’s delightfully scruffy bun and small, black gauges complimented his “Stehekin Sushi Bar: Wild and Raw” t-shirt, featuring a salmon swimming into a bear’s mouth. He had finished the Pacific Crest Trail last year, he told us, and had fallen so in love with Stehekin on the way that he and his girlfriend had come back for summer jobs.

A server on her day off who had just graduated from Whitman College asked if I knew a friend at Yale. Meanwhile, my mother’s comment that the views from Stehekin reminded her of a year spent in New Zealand had led to affectionate story-swapping over memories of the Tongariro Crossing hike with another server. “I’m moving to the South Island in September,” the Whitman grad informed me. While many of the bakery’s other customers clearly hailed from Seattle—Mariners caps were everywhere—a few were as far from home as ourselves, going to extraordinary lengths to “get away.”

And the image of isolation, always so tenuous to begin with, faded. The bakery concentrated the signs of modern interconnectedness into a recognizable form, but they were also dispersed across the Stehekin landscape. Mining, logging, and increasingly sightseeing provide the town’s lifeblood, and the ferry provides its groceries—and its cherry-red Fords and Toyotas. In less obvious ways than Chelan—or especially, than Seattle, the home of Amazon—Stehekin still depends on the global mores of tourism and trade.

As a mother-daughter excursion, the trip was definitely exceptional. In many ways, Stehekin really was exceptional too. It’s “wild and raw,” to be sure—a wildfire last year threatened what could have been a permanent evacuation of the town. The earliest homesteaders feared the Stehekin winters, as do all but a few of the current residents. Yet it still bears many of the same marks of global interconnectivity as a sushi bar. It’s a town connected to the world with fewer ties than most: only a small asphalt airstrip, a few thin trails strung across the steep mountainsides, and a long length of watery blue twine, less than a quarter-mile wide at its narrowest point. But through these connective tissues still flow influential quantities of capital, information, and natural resources, abstractions that one wouldn’t, but perhaps should, associate with this little town.

 

Hannah Hauptman’s summer was a tale of two Washingtons. Ask her about it (or her tenuous grasp on the fiction of Charles Dickens) at hannah.hauptman@yale.edu.

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